International Women’s Day (8th March) originated from the trade union movement in America in the early 20th century, particularly in the activism of the women who worked in the clothing industry “sweatshops” of the time. In 1907 the women held a “Hunger March” in New York in protest at the dangerous working conditions and very long working periods, and calling for a ten-hour working day and improved wages. The police attacked the march, and the following year on March 8th 1908 a commemorative march was held, which became a milestone in women’s history. This date is what we now celebrate as International Women’s day, and by 1911 it had become international.
International Women’s Day is a time for women around the world to commemorate their struggles and celebrate their achievements. The United Nations formally proclaimed March 8 International Women’s Day in 1975. The roots of International Women’s Day can be traced back to the struggles of women workers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries:
In 1857, thousands of women working in the New York garment industry took to the streets to protest unfair wages, a 12-hour work day, and sexual harassment in the workplace.
Conditions for working women did not improve. Female garment workers held another massive demonstration in New York in 1908. They renewed the call for fair treatment at work and demanded an end to child labour.
On March 8, 1908, women gathered in New York City to rally around the issue of women’s suffrage.
In 1910, 100 women representing 17 countries voted to establish an International Women’s Day. This took place at an International Conference of Socialist Women in Copenhagen, Denmark.
On March 25, 1911, a fire in a sweatshop owned by the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York killed 145 female garment workers. Unsafe conditions contributed to the high death toll. Many of the fire escapes were locked to prevent women from slipping out, even for a moment’s break. Eighty thousand workers marched through the streets to attend the mass funeral for the victims.
A year later, 14,000 textile workers went out on strike. With a rallying cry of “Better to starve fighting than starve working,” the women stayed out for nearly three months.
Their courage inspired the song “Bread and Roses” which has become associated with International Women’s Day. Bread symbolizes economic justice and roses represent quality of life.
March 8 marks women’s efforts over the years to attain justice and equality for themselves and their children.
Bread and Roses
As we go marching marching in the beauty of the day
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lots gray
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses
For the people hear us singing: bread & roses, bread & roses!
As we go marching, marching, we battle too for men
For they are women’s children & we mother them again
(For men can ne’er be free til our slavery’s at an end)
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes
Hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread but give us roses
As we go marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying thru our singing their ancient call for bread
Small art & love & beauty their drudging spirits knew
Yes it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses too
As we go marching, marching, we bring the greater days
The rising of the women means the rising of the race
No more the drudge & idler, ten that toil where one reposes
But a sharing of life’s glories – bread & roses, bread & roses!